75 years ago in 1948, a huge fire destroyed the old Smithsonian Hall, a famous landmark near the Nyack docks. Its name harkens back to its more famous ancestor, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, that opened in 1846, thanks to a generous donation by a British Scientist named James Smithson. In Nyack’s case, the large hall was cheekily named by David and Tunis Smith alluding to its more significant cousin. The two, along with their two brothers, founded the Nyack Steamboat Company, bought shares in the Nyack Turnpike, and ran the largest general store of its day on lower Burd Street.
Smithsonian Hall, once located approximately at the current entrance to the Memorial Park parking lot, hosted social and political functions, as well as a general store during Nyack’s growth spurt after the Civil War. Here is the story of this long-lost building, its importance in early Nyack, and its destruction in a huge fire that nearly destroyed an entire section of Nyack.
The Smith Brothers’ Store
The growth of the Nyack Turnpike to Suffern spurred new business near the Nyack’s public docks along lower Main and Burd Streets in the middle of the 1830s. Up to that time Nyack had few stores. Abram Tallman opened the first store in Nyack in 1804 at the site of the future Smithsonian Hall. John Green, who’s building still stands, opened a business on Main Street around 1819. Tallman’s store was in turn run by D. D. Demarest who sold the business to the Smiths in 1839. The Smith family was so important to the area that that Burd Street from Piermont Avenue to the docks was called Smith Place. The store was Rockland’s largest store selling household goods, groceries, and farming equipment.
The Smith brothers built Nyack’s most famous steamboat the Chrystenah. D.D. Smith built a fancy Italianate house with great river views just west of the store. Later, he turned his house into the Smithsonian Hotel, one of the many summer resort hotels in Nyack. The Smiths seemed to have their hands in everything. D.D. Smith, for example, owned the Oak Hill Cemetery until 1865 He received 4/5 of the revenue from the sale of lots. Isaac and Tunis Smith each built large Italianate mansions on Main Street west of Broadway.
Founding of Smithsonian Hall
In 1863-1864 the Smith Brothers expanded their store, replacing their old store with a two-story brick building that measured 90’ x 63’ with 13’ ceilings. The first floor housed a hardware department with building material, tools, and garden and agricultural implements. A department of paints, oil, and glass occupied one side of the floor, on the other side was a grocery and a crockery department. At the back of the floor a broad semi-circular stairway led to the upper floor that contained household dry goods, clothes, carpeting, wallpaper, and gentlemen’s furnishings. The building sported a relatively fancy frontage on Burd Street.
However, the Smiths’ store faced new competition as Nyack’s downtown boomed after the Civil War. The opening of the Northern Railroad in 1872 began to pull travelers and businesses away from the docks. To keep up, the Smith Brothers shifted to a new model and opened a meeting hall on the second floor. A small brick building on the west side contained a stairway to the hall. The hall seated 800 people in armchairs. A flood-lit stage occupied one end with dressing rooms to either side. Historians attribute different dates to the opening of the hall, however, newspapers place the opening in 1872.
The official opening of the Smithsonian occurred on April 2, 1872, with a “Grand Promenade Concert’ featuring a popular local band. Despite muddy streets, the elite of Nyack filled the hall. Notables included Mr. and Mrs. David Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Tunis Smith, Colonel and Mrs. Blauvelt, Commodore Williams Voorhis and wife. Mrs. Mansfield from the Rockland Female Institute appears to have attended by herself.
The Rockland County Journal took pains to describe the dresses of the young single women. Miss Gedney dressed in black gabardine with two sprays of flowers on the overdress while Miss Tallman wore a dress of lavender colored silk with a white tarlatan overdress. Miss Livermore’s dress of black silk might have fit in with today’s fashion. Singing, music, and dancing went well into the wee hours.
“The 2nd of April 1872 will long be remembered by the citizens of Rockland Coutny as one of the most remarkable occasions in the history of the county.” Rockland County Journal
Events at the Smithsonian Hall
The Smithsonian saw numerous social and political events. In its first year, performances included a drama entitled Buffalo Bill, a lecture by john B. Gough entitled Will it Pay?, Mrs. Jarley’s wax figures (a popular American phenomena displaying characters from a play called Mrs. Jarley’s Wax figures, itself derived from a character in Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop), and a performance entitled the Panorama of the Messiah. The closing exercise for Nyack’s first kindergarten run by Miss Sally Robinson on First Street found its place in the hall. Grenville Wilson, local composer, and founder of the Nyack Philharmonic, held a series of concerts starting in October and continuing through the winter.
A Change in Ownership
Smithsonian Hall faced challenges from the outset. Before 1872 the only meeting halls in Nyack were the much smaller Union Hall on Main Street west of Broadway and the primitive meeting hall called the Wigwam in an old lumber yard on S. Broadway at Church Street. In 1873 the Opera House opened near the terminus of the newly opened Northern Railroad. The railroad drew business away from the Smith brothers’ steamboat traffic and helped in the shift of Nyack’s downtown west.
The changing business dynamics along with overextended business loans resulted in the Smith’s bankruptcy in 1878. While the name of the building remained Smithsonian Hall until its demise, it was never again a hall
A Chain of Businesses
For the next 12 years, after the demise of the Smith brothers’ business, the hall embraced a number of businesses none of which lasted long. In 1879, George Grifton opened the Rockland Car Head Lining and Decorated Ceiling factory in the building. By 1884 Charles Theis ran a shoe factory in the building. Colonel Richard Vose, owner of a shipyard in Upper Nyack, leased the building for a factory that may never have opened. In 1891, Nyack Express Delivery used the building for storage and shipping. This business lasted 25 years until Edward L. Maurer’s garage took its place. In 1945 the building was mostly vacant containing some mahogany furniture.
The fire of unknown origin (the Journal News suggested it was started by a ‘tramp’ since the electricity was turned off) was discovered at 5:20a by a taxi driver who was fishing from a nearby dock. Julius Petersen and his niece lived in a residence that backed up to the office of the Petersen’s boatyard. This building joined the east side of Smithsonian Hall. The two were awakened by a bookkeeper well after the fire started. Sparks from the fire threatened other downtown buildings as well as the nearby Tidewater Oil Company.
Nearby Nyack fire stations responded at once. The Mazeppa Company fire engine pulled up so close to the front of the building that sparks set its front seat ablaze. Nyack Fire Company Chief Roy Wanamaker was out of town, so the firefighting was directed by battalion head, Fred Schettig.
Water was initially drawn from hydrants and later from the Hudson River. As water struck the old wall of the old stairwell, used as storage by the boatyard, it collapsed all at once. Two boats stored in the building were destroyed. The buildings 18-inch-thick walls saved the fire from spreading further into the shipyard. The “out-signal” did not sound until 8:45a. The building was entirely gutted with an immediate danger of the walls collapsing.
Smithsonian Hall occupied an important place in Nyack’s post-Civil War growth spurt. A legacy of Nyack’s first entrepreneurs, it never lost its name despite serving as a hall for less than ten years. As you drive into the Memorial Park parking lot, remember that you are passing through the location of what was once Rockland’s largest general stores and later the home of the iconic Smithsonian Hall.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike
Editor’s note: This article is sponsored and written by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.